A story in the Eat Drink Play section about wine corkage incorrectly reported that customers who bring their own wine into restaurants cannot legally open it themselves. While most restaurants do not allow the practice, there is no statutory provision prohibiting it, according to the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
Admittedly, bringing wine to a restaurant is an unusual practice. You wouldn't carry in, say, a steak and ask the chef to prepare it. Nor do you bring in beer or spirits. Just wine.
Corkage comes into play when you BYOB. It's the fee that covers the costs of wine glassware maintenance (buying, cleaning, storing) and the server's time uncorking the bottle (legally, you cannot open it yourself). Corkage fees also help establishments recoup money you might have spent ordering from the wine list. Fees run the gamut from $5 or $10 at your local bistro to $150 at Yountville's French Laundry -- although the average is $20 to $30.
Many restaurants put considerable time, effort and passion into creating wine lists, selecting varietals and styles to pair with the chef's menu. By choosing a bottle from the list, you may discover a new wine to enjoy. Handled properly, though, corkage can be a great way to drink what you want to drink when you dine out, especially if you have a special bottle you've saved for celebrating a birthday or anniversary.
Here are tips to make the experience go smoothly.
Call before you go: Inquire about the corkage fee details before you walk in the door. Some restaurants limit you to one or two bottles. Others allow more than one wine if you also purchase a bottle off their list. And a few restaurants do not allow BYOB of any kind.
Don't quibble about the cork: Corkage is charged for screw-cap as well as cork-topped bottles, and most fees apply to regular 750-mL bottles. Restaurants may charge double for magnums.
Check the list: When you call about corkage fees, ask if your wine is on the restaurant's wine list. If it is, choose another bottle from your home stash. It's tacky to bring in a bottle that the restaurant already sells. Your safest bets are special bottles -- older vintages or wines you bought abroad while on vacation.
Don't bring cheap wine: It's just not cool to bring a $10 wine. Instead of adding a $20 corkage fee to that $10 bottle, you probably could find a nice, interesting bottle on the wine list for $28 to $35.
Transport the wine discreetly. This is not the time for brown bags. Bring the wine in a fabric bottle bag or nice wine carrier instead. If it's a white, rosé or sparkling wine, chill it at home first.
Offer a taste: Common wine etiquette dictates offering your server or sommelier a taste of your wine. Don't expect, though, to get the corkage fee waived with this gesture.
(Possibly) score free corkage: Most restaurants will waive one corkage fee if you buy a bottle off the wine list, too. On occasion, we've had fees waived when we've left unfinished wine for the servers and kitchen to try. (Psst: Newly opened restaurants may extend complimentary BYOB until they get a wine and beer license. Local mom-and-pop eateries may be corkage-free or waive corkage on certain nights.)
Tote leftovers discreetly, too: Legally in California, you can cork that bottle and take it with you, as long as it is in a bag, carrier or otherwise covered. Just keep the wine in the trunk on your drive home. Or leave the wine for the restaurant staff.
Leave an extra tip: Even though you're paying for corkage service, common practice is to tip on the value of the wine you bring in. If that wine might have cost $40 on the list, add an extra $4 to $6 on top of the food tip.
Reach Mary Orlin at email@example.com.
Know before you go
Avoid surprises. Find out a restaurant's corkage policy using these websites and mobile apps:
Zagat: This guide lists 393 BYOB-friendly San Francisco Bay Area restaurants at www.zagat.com.
CorkageFeed: This website is a crowd-sourced listing of restaurant corkage, where users and restaurant owners can add corkage fees, reviews about wine service and even corkage specials or places that are corkage-free. Search by restaurant name, city or ZIP code. www.corkagefeed.com
CorkageFee app: This free mobile app searches restaurants in four U.S. cities, including San Francisco, to give you corkage fees plus community reviews of the wine experience there.
Yelp: Online or app searches for "no corkage fee" in cities such as Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco yield many options for BYOB fee-free dining.